The game’s rigged.
The rules are inconsistent, and the tools are counter-intuitive.
There’s no intelligent design. No system that’s completely predictable. There’s hardly any logic, and the path is full of traps.
Welcome to the English language. It’s not an easy thing to break into.
But if you’ve got a good grip on it, you’ve got the power to make things easier when you write.
It’s not just about helping out your fellow human.
It’s also a good way to reel in a bigger audience.
Writing in a way that’s open to everyone means more bums on seats, more eyes on your page – and more wallets at your checkout.
Here are a few of the easiest ways you can tweak what you write to help people who don’t find English that simple:
Assume you’ll always be taken literally
In English, idioms and proverbs are a dime a dozen.
They’re helpful once in a blue moon – and for a native audience, reading them is a piece of cake.
But if you let them get out of hand, some international readers might not be able to wrap their heads around them. And instead of reading on, they might just call it a day.
Did you get a taste of your own medicine?
I know: I’m beating a dead horse.
But just try to read all of that again. Take every word literally, and you’ll realise it’s nonsense.
Native English speakers have all grown up with these weird phrases and images. Each ridiculous idiom is accepted as a whole unit with its own distinct meaning.
We don’t look at the individual words. But your international readers will – and it won’t make any sense at all.
So what’s the quick fix?
That’s easy. Cut them out.
Even to a native English reader, they’re tired and unoriginal anyway. Too many in quick succession, and you’ll start to sound like a Disneyland animatronic.
But once you start to notice them and hunt for better ways of expressing yourself, you’ll start to build new phrases and images of your own.
And you’ll end up being a better writer for audiences of any level of English.
Set yourself an ‘unusual word’ limit
When you’re writing for people who have been reading English for decades, adding a few spicy words can help to keep things interesting.
You wouldn’t normally describe a word as ‘spicy’, for example.
By throwing in an unexpected word or phrase, you can help to shake your reader out of their autopilot and bring their focus back to your message.
That’s just one small part of good writing – adding flavour to your narrative.
But if you’ve ever come across something written by a try-hard artiste, you’ll know just how exhausting it can get when every other word comes from the darkest depths of a thesaurus:
‘Exemplary writing, with all its gloss and sheen, is an exquisite beast,’ quipped the artiste.
‘In the dextrous hands of a sage master, it can cause us to brazenly weep or radiate with laughter – all with a few primal words in their best order.’
It’s a load of rubbish, of course. And I wouldn’t rate the hack that wrote it.
But there are some tasty words in there. If only that idiot writer had spaced them out a bit.
For the most part, keep your art in your pants.
Try to set a wacky-word limit and stick to it. One funky word in every hundred, for example. Or no more than three double-take phrases for each written page.
And if you’re not sure about the exact limit, you’re usually better off being overcautious. If an artiste can make things exhausting for native English speakers, it’s going to be a crushing ordeal for anyone who finds reading English a little difficult.
Stop mixing your phrasal verbs
For some reason, everyday English is packed with things called phrasal verbs.
They’re so common that most native speakers don’t realise they’re a type of thing.
But once you start to notice them, it’s easy to see how they cause confusion.
So what are they?
Put simply, a phrasal verb is what happens when you add a modifying word to a verb to create a phrase with a new meaning.
Picture the scene:
You’re taking a holiday. Once the plane takes off, you take in the view from the window, take up the attendant’s offer of coffee, and take out your laptop.
You take off your glasses and rub your eyes. Are you really going to start checking your emails so soon after take-off? No wonder people say you take after your mother.
You open your emails, and you’re taken aback. Your boss wants you to take on some new work while you’re away.
You’re not going to let anything take away from the holiday you deserve.
You start to take down an email, taking your boss through all the reasons why you’re not going to take on any work this week. You refuse to be taken for a fool.
But you soon start to calm down, and logic takes over. You can’t just take it all out on your boss. You don’t want to say something you’ll have to take back later.
You close the laptop, and you take a deep breath. Relaxation is hard.
Maybe you should take up yoga.
Had enough? Thought so.
If you can’t see how that short passage is going to ruin an international reader’s day, then there’s no helping you.
So how do we make things better?
We can’t avoid phrasal verbs entirely. They’re everywhere, and they’re an essential part of keeping our writing conversational and warm.
But we can be a little more careful with them.
Use only the most common and basic phrasal verbs that everyone should be used to – everybody takes off glasses or clothes on a daily basis.
Avoid the ones that seem old-fashioned or rare – no one really takes down an email, anyway.
And for the love of English, leave a little space between them. There are plenty of more literal alternative phrases you can use.
Don’t put off your readers by putting across your point while you put out too many conflicting phrasal verbs. They won’t put up with it.
Keep contractions and negatives away from the important stuff
Native English speakers just can’t help themselves.
They’re not unwilling to make their writing unclear without not including too many unnecessary negatives, and I’d’ve bet good money that we’ve all used more contractions than we should’ve – even though we’d’ve all been taught we needn’t.
A big part of this is just the classic English style.
People like to soften harsh statements by using negatives. It’s somehow more polite and less confrontational.
It’s not that I dislike this approach (see what I did?) but it can be a nightmare for an innocent reader who has to fight to untangle the multiple layers of your message.
It’s the same with contractions. Native speakers can zip through a string of everyday contractions without really reading them – they’re used to seeing them everywhere, and they’re useful for creating a warm and friendly tone of voice.
But for international readers, contractions create an extra step of complexity that demands additional focus. And if you want your readers to keep up with your writing, you need to be careful with them.
And how do we do that?
If you break down every negative and contraction into something direct and simple, you can lose a lot of flavour in your writing – you’ll end up with a message that’s dry and boring to read.
On the other hand, there’s some information you really don’t want to mess around with. If you’re giving out medical instructions or legal advice, it’s perfectly fine to say ‘do not’ or ‘cannot’. You wouldn’t’ve wanted someone to not un-die for the sake of your tone of voice.
But for most of us, there are loads of everyday contractions that are probably safe to use liberally.
It is usually better to use a contraction, as long as it is a common one. That is how people speak, and it is totally weird to write conversationally without them.
Don’t go nuts with the double-meaning words
If we could go back in time, we’d probably lay out our languages a little better.
But we can’t. So we’re stuck with it.
If it were me heading back through the chronosphere, I’d definitely iron out a few homographs.
Those are the words that have the same spelling and sound, but mean totally different things.
In other words, they’re traps. And your international readers are probably quite rightly pissed off about them.
Consider the plight of Sally:
Sally leaves the bank and admires the fallen leaves as she walks down to the bank of the river. She wonders if she should go back for her book, but her back is too sore for the walk, and she can’t afford to book another boat ride if she misses this one.
She’s about to board the boat when she notices the flimsy board she has to cross. She’s terrified of water, and she’s cross that she has to cross such a flimsy board if she wants to board the boat. With her back in its current state, the current of the river would surely pull her under if something went wrong.
She watches a duck duck under the board, probably on its way to fish for some fish.
‘Forget the boat,’ she thinks. ‘I’ll find another way.’
She wiggles through a wave of pedestrians and gives a wave to a nearby policeman. She needs to address him to ask for an address.
‘Right, that’s easy’, he says. ‘Take a right down here, then walk for a second till your second right. If I’m right, there’ll be a few overgrown yards after a few yards. Ignore all the roads with shops, and the only one left will be the one on the left. That’ll lead you to the lead factory, as if you’re heading back to the back of the bank. From there, if I’m right, it’s your second right, and you’ll be right next to the train station. All right?’
‘Right,’ says Sally. ‘Er, thanks.’
Of course, no stable-minded human would ever write such a monstrous bit of English (hello!).
But it helps to demonstrate three important facts:
- There are a lot of homographs
- They’re not easy to spot when you’re used to them
- They can be horribly confusing when you’re not used to them.
So what’s the solution?
Easy. Wherever you can, don’t use a matching pair of homographs in the same sentence. Instead of saying ‘The option on the right is the right choice’, say ‘The option on the right is the correct choice’.
There’s no confusion, and you haven’t had to change the meaning.
And if you’re using a single homograph on its own, try to use the context of the sentence to make the meaning clear.
‘We need a better screening process’ can mean two very different things, depending on whether you’re a recruiter or a computer manufacturer.
Similarly, ‘We’re looking for a better maintenance deal’ has more than one possible meaning. Are you a landlord or a divorce lawyer?
Once you’re aware of these dual-meaning words, it becomes easy to rephrase your messages to make sure there’s no ambiguity – and your international readers will love you for it.
Ready to please everyone?
If you don’t care about readers who aren’t native English speakers, don’t worry – they won’t be bothering you with their money for much longer.
But for those of you who are willing to make life easier for as many customers as possible, here’s a quick recap:
- Read everything you’ve written literally. Does it still make sense when you take every word at face value?
- Slaughter your darlings like a biblical plague. No one wants to read the masturbatory ramblings of a try-hard artiste – so put a limit on the number of fancy, difficult words.
- Learn to discriminate between phrasal verbs. Some of them are obvious and well-known, and some of them are peculiar and counter-intuitive.
- Don’t unlive your readers when you shouldn’t’ve not dis-unclarified things. If the information is critical, make sure they can instantly understand it.
- Keep the words with multiple meanings far away from each other. It’s too late to fix the language – but we can still fix the way we write every day.
And if you like making more money – but you don’t like playing with words – you could just talk to a writer instead.